Water Signs

La Jolla Sunset

Sunset over Pacific Beach, La Jolla CA

I spent part of this week on a business trip to the southern end of our great state, training staff down in San Diego.  The ocean’s moderating influence on air temperature makes the California coast particularly appealing for inlanders like myself this time of year.  So I was surprised to learn, while watching live video feeds of the devastation wrought by Hurricane Harvey, that San Diego was under an “extreme heat advisory.”  The temperature?  85°F.  What I thought to be pleasant is apparently dangerously hot by San Diego standards.  I suppose it’s all a matter of what one is used to.

Meanwhile, back home in Sacramento, we continue to experience day after scorching day of 100° plus temperatures, as one of the hottest summers on record marches on into September.  Driving north from San Diego, we stopped for lunch in Santa Clarita before chugging over the Grapevine into the Central Valley.  The thermometer in our car displayed an outdoor temperature of 112°F.  It felt like a flashback to our three years of living out in the Mojave Desert.  Our holiday weekend promises more of the same, with the Saturday temperature forecast to hit 111° here in California’s capital.  We hide out in our tiny house and blast the A/C.  150 miles to our south, my octogenarian parents (who rarely turn on the central air in their large home) have been paying $400 per month in electricity bills just to keep the house cool enough to avoid heat stroke.

During the monotonous 1,000 mile plus round trip to and from San Diego, it was hard not to notice the roadside signs and billboards up and down the Central Valley along Interstate 5 and Highway 99.  I am a bit too young to remember the whimsical Burma Shave signs of yesteryear, but old enough to recall the goofy South of the Border signs that dot Interstate 95 through North Carolina as one approaches that tourist trap in Dillon, S.C.  Anyone remember the upside down sign emblazoned with the legend “Pedro Feex Later?”  It sounds more than a bit racist now, but as a child in the 1970s, I didn’t know any better and thought it was hilarious.  This from a New York Jewish white boy who had never met a Mexican-American and didn’t know what a tortilla is until the age of 35.

Here in California, the signs planted in the fields along the vast empty expanse of freeway cutting through Fresno, Kings and Kern Counties shy away from cheesy advertising in favor of pleas for water.  Yes, water.  You have to live here to appreciate the never-ending political and financial battles over obtaining more water for agricultural purposes.  Now, I don’t pretend to know a thing about California water politics, but I am aware of the constant shrieking and hand-wringing over the relative merits of building tunnels in the Bay Area and high-speed rail service between San Francisco and Los Angeles as opposed to making greater efforts to satisfy the seemingly insatiable thirst of our farmers.  I also hear a lot about diversion of Sierra Nevada snow melt runoff away from the Central Valley to satisfy the water needs of southern California cities.  Amidst allegations of the south stealing the north’s water, I am reminded of the nation’s bitter division during the Civil War.  Indeed, there are perennial proposals for everything from California’s secession from the Union to dividing our sprawling state into two, four, six or eight states of more manageable size with greater local control.  If you don’t believe me, check out hashtag #calexit on Twitter or this recent article from the Sacramento Bee or this one from the Los Angeles Times.  In California, land of the ballot proposition, anything (no matter how outrageous) can be put to a vote.

With water being the essence of life, it is difficult for anyone to argue against it.  However, the signs along the freeway have a tendency to pander to base instincts at the expense of rational thought.  One is led to believe that providing more water to California’s agricultural interests is a “no brainer.”  But is it, really?  And so, without further ado, I present for your entertainment two of my favorite roadside signs that I have seen in multiple locations with a number of minor variations.

“Is growing food wasting water?”  The most recent version of this sign features a photo of a young boy with a puzzled expression scratching his head.  Um, well, for starters, define your terms, please.  What exactly do you mean by “growing food?”  Perhaps you are referring to California’s famous fields of lettuce, onions and tomatoes, our orange groves and almond orchards, our world-renowned vineyards.  Or perhaps what you really mean are the vast hay and alfalfa fields that suck up water to feed, not our people, but the animals that power the state’s beef cattle, dairy and poultry industries.  This type of “growing food” leaves us with a legacy of methane gas that contributes mightily to global warming (I told you it was hot) and waterways polluted with millions of tons of animal feces.  If you should happen to think I’m being overly dramatic, by all means take a ride down I-5 past Coalinga and catch a whiff as you whizz by Harris Ranch.  The hubris of that operation in posting billboards advertising its restaurant boggles my mind.  How would you like your shit today, sir?  Rare, medium or well done?

Is growing food wasting water, you ask?  I’m surprised that the state’s agricultural industry has the nerve to bring this up.  It sure is wasting water when used to sustain hungry and thirsty livestock just long enough to kill the poor beasts and turn them into hamburgers, steaks and Chicken McNuggets.  If raising animals for meat and dairy were banned from the state, we’d have more than enough water to grow the plants needed to feed our own people and export to neighboring states and to the world.  But agricultural interests don’t want you to know that.  They must think we’re ignorant, stupid or both.

“No water for valley farms = No jobs!”  Oh, goodness, you’ve got to love this one.  Again, define your terms, please.  No jobs doing what??  No jobs picking grapes, strawberries and citrus?  Check out this article in today’s paper, suggesting that a significant reduction in the number of undocumented Mexicans crossing into the United States to perform backbreaking labor in the fields at low wages has resulted in increased automation and fewer jobs.  This has nothing to do with water.

Then, of course, one must consider the folly of the paradigm that is California’s agriculture industry.  The PR people will tell you that we are “the nation’s salad bowl” and that we feed the world.  Excuse me, but why?  Anyone who thinks about our climate for even a minute would have to at least ask.  The climate of California’s Central Valley is Mediterranean, just one tick shy of desert.  We are a very dry place.  It doesn’t rain at all here for most of the year.  Our water supply depends largely on how much snow the state’s northern and eastern mountains get in the wintertime.  The phrase “seven years of drought” is bandied about regularly.  Yes, we have year-round sunshine and suitable land, but who in their right mind would plan extensive agriculture in a desert climate with little water?  All of us need a steady, reliable water supply for our homes and families.  I say people before agriculture.

Our state’s agricultural industry is largely dependent on irrigation.  That means bringing in water from elsewhere because we don’t have much here naturally.  Wouldn’t it make a lot more sense to concentrate our nation’s plant-growing operations in areas that God has blessed with plenty of water instead of in the desert?  The Pacific Northwest and New England come to mind.  Why deprive the people of our cities of their water supply in order to run the Rain Birds and sprinklers that prop up the state’s agriculture?

When the sign says that no water means no jobs, what it really means is that no water means no agricultural jobs.  The state’s big agricultural interests would have us believe that we’ll all be out of work unless we kowtow to their demands to commandeer our scarce water supplies so they can keep making money.  This is a lie, pure and simple.

I have to laugh when I hear the wry suggestion that the entire valley be paved over to bring all the call centers here from India and the Philippines.  I do get it, though.  We have evolved into a post-agricultural, post-industrial economy that focuses on the information industry.  Concentrating our state’s economic efforts in that direction instead of wasting them on irrigation not only fits with the realities of climate change but would also create plenty of jobs and bring renewed prosperity to California.

 

Uncle Guac’s Stupid Sign of the Day

(Hand-written on green construction paper and taped to a telephone pole.  I wish I could have taken a photo of it, but I was driving.)

I will buy your house for ca$h!  Call Larry.

Oooh, Larry, now aren’t you a stud?  Put that dollar bill away, you big spender, you.  Actually, I’m not looking for ca$h.  I was kind of hoping you would pay me in chicken eggs.  Bawk!

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The Scrabble Zone

The 2017 Great American Escape

SPRINGFIELD, MASSACHUSETTS

It is difficult to adequately explain the intensity of a five-day Scrabble tournament to one who has never experienced it.  Yes, it is a grind to play seven or eight games per day for days in a row.  And you can’t help but notice the yawns and drooping expressions on the faces of the competitors when the last round of the day is underway and it’s close to 6 p.m.  But we always come back for more, spending thousands of dollars and our precious annual vacation time to fly and drive around the country to do it again.  As one of my opponents here at Word Cup 7 explains, “it’s like heroin to the vein.”

Merry Scrabble addicts all are we, counting the days until the next tournament, eagerly anticipating the next fix.

Scrabble truly is an all-ages game, as is borne out by the wide range of players here.  Over the last few days, for example, I have been soundly trounced by a boy who is on his summer vacation after having finished seventh grade, as well as by a very old lady who has to be close to age 90.  The boy, who has won prize after prize here, tells me that he practices with his mom’s boyfriend.  Then he kills me by over 150 points.  The old lady tells me that winning or losing doesn’t much matter to her and that she’s just glad to still be here and able to play.  Then she puts her word prowess on display and proceeds to beat me to pieces.

And we come from all over.  The tournament director drove here from Iowa, while the Minneapolis-St. Paul area is well represented by a contingent that traveled from Minnesota.  There are players here from Arizona and Florida and Oregon.  I am one of five Californians who made it out to New England for this event.

The local newspaper and TV station show up with cameras to shoot video and stills and interview some of the players.  The mayor sends a representative with a proclamation.  It is a big deal locally.

Many of my fellow Scrabblers have never been to Springfield before, but to me it is something of a homecoming.  I lived here for three years while attending law school back in the 1980s.  I am pleased to discover that a few of the eateries that I so enjoyed back then are still around and thriving decades later, serving new generations of students.

In many respects, however, it makes no difference what city we’re in when we are caught up in the excitement of the game.  When we shake hands and shake our tile bags, announce our scores and hit our clocks, it’s as if we’re lost in another world.

“Hey, did you hear that Trump fired Scaramucci after eleven days?” one of my fellow players announces between games.  Indeed, I had not.  Accustomed as I am to reading three or four newspapers online each day, I suspend my usual habits when attending a Scrabble tournament.  For here, under the crystal chandeliers in the grand ballroom of a big hotel, the world goes away for a while.  All that matters is finding that next big play for 90 points, chasing after the elusive triple-triple and notching up another win on our tally sheets.

We have entered the Scrabble zone.

 

48 States

Michigan

The 2017 Great American Escape

STURGIS, MICHIGAN

The Indiana Tollway, representing the joinder of Interstate Routes 80 and 90 from Chicago east into Ohio, runs along the most northern edge of the Hoosier State.  Last night, we stopped late in South Bend, famous as the home of football powerhouse Notre Dame University.  This is not my first time in Indiana; once, years ago, I stayed the night in Indianapolis on an unhappy cross-country trek with my parents, from Boston to California.  I admit to having only a vague concept of the state, a mishmash of images from TV — the Indy 500 auto race, brutal maximum security prisons, discrimination against gays under Vice President Mike Pence (in his days as state governor) and cornball family values à la “The Middle.”

But Michigan somehow feels different.  Despite the media’s images of Detroit’s blight and violence, of former auto plants, now boarded up and decamped to Mexico, my thoughts drift to the Holland tulip festival, to the hallowed halls of Ann Arbor, and to the Mackinac Bridge and the Upper Peninsula.  With Lake Michigan on the west and Lake Huron on the east, I think of sailboats, seagulls and saltwater taffy.

All of this is foolishness, I know, for Michigan is likely no better or worse than Indiana, its esteemed neighbor to the south.  By pure happenstance, however, Michigan will always occupy a special place in my heart as the final piece of my puzzle.  For Michigan was, until Monday, the last of the 48 continental United States that I had yet to visit.

I explained to my wife that the Indiana Toll Road flirts with the Michigan border without ever inching over into the Wolverine State.  To pull this off would require a bit of strategic planning.  We could head north from South Bend into the Niles, Michigan area, but the map seemed to indicate that finding our way back to the interstate might involve some complicated road wrangling.  On the other hand, we could proceed about 50 more miles along our trek east and exit the interstate just the tiniest blip south of Sturgis, Michigan.  I even found a pizza parlor with a website that promised a decent lunch in Sturgis.

The exit we’re looking for, I told my wife as we entered the freeway and collected a toll ticket, was Star Mills/Sturgis.  If we got off in Star Mills IN, we’d be less than five miles from Sturgis MI.  My face fell as I examined the list of exits on the toll ticket.  No Star Mills.  No Sturgis.  What now?

I harbored the unreasonable hope that perhaps some minor exits went unlisted on the toll ticket.  Then again, I reminded myself, some exits may be closed as several were in the Gary/Hammond area near Chicago.  A more likely theory, I realized, is that what looked on the map like an exit to State Road 9 was actually not an interchange, but a mere overpass or underpass.  Visions of returning to California with only 47 states under my belt danced through my head.  ABM would be my new self-deprecatory joke.  All But Michigan.

As we approached a town named Howe, I knew we were getting close to where I wanted to be.  Could the Howe exit get us there?  And Howe?  (Greet adversity with horrible puns, I always say.)  The sign does say Highway 9.  That looks promising.  And then, just before the off ramp, a small sign appeared, “Sturgis.”  (No mention of Michigan, as if the Indiana authorities wouldn’t dare utter another state’s name.  Foreigners!)

My wife was driving, and I all but yelled “Here! This one! Get off here!”  We paid the toll, headed north on Route 9 and were greeted about a minute later with the sign pictured above.  A few minutes later, we were enjoying lunch at Mancino’s on Centerville Boulevard in Sturgis, state of Michigan.

Now that I’ve visited each of the 48 contiguous states, what’s next?  Well, there’s only one thing left to do.  Onward to Alaska and Hawaii!

 

 

 

Midwest Impressions

The 2017 Great American Escape

CHIPPEWA FALLS, WISCONSIN

As a longtime Californian, a few things stand out among my impressions of the Great Plains and Midwest:

Open space.  Driving north on U.S. 85 from Spearfish, South Dakota to Belfield, North Dakota, we saw hayfields on either side of the road, and little else.  Waving grasses across the flat land, broken occasionally by a little rise, followed by more long views.  In California, hay is generally bundled into large rectangular bales, but here it is rolled up in what looks like giant jelly rolls, some sealed in plastic.  The few tiny towns we encountered consisted of a church, a school, a bar, perhaps a convenience store or tractor parts shop, and a few houses.  And cows, lots of cattle.  My wife says it’s like Little House on the Prairie, while visions of Ole Rølvaag’s character Per Hansa come to my mind.

Green.  It feels as if we’ve fled the burning of California.  Ten days ago, we made a quick trip from Sacramento to Los Angeles and back for work.  Down on Thursday, home on Friday. We drove south on Interstate 5, only to find ourselves stopped on the Grapevine, just short of Santa Clarita, as firefighters battled a blaze not far from the road.  Following this delay, we vowed to return by another route.  Heading north on Highway 101, we encountered more fires, marked by huge plumes of smoke that could be seen for miles.  Meanwhile, back in our own neck of the woods, half of Butte County was evacuated as a result of the Wall Fire.  The hot summer has left California an amalgam of grasses burned brown by the sun and earth scorched black by flames.  But here in the Dakotas, Minnesota and Wisconsin, the lush greenness feels like another world.  The millions of evergreens of the Black Hills gave way to the Dakota grasslands.  Finally, the deep green of the leafy trees lining both sides of the local roads here in the upper Midwest soothe my soul and remind me of my childhood in the East.

Casinos.  I had no idea of the extent to which gambling has taken hold in Montana and the Dakotas.  Just about every town has a few video slots at the local gas station/convenience store.  And, no, I refuse to dilute its image by calling it “gaming,” as all the roadside signs do.  Is that, like, hunting big game?  Or video games like Xbox and Atari?  I know!  I’m headed across the country to Springfield, Massachusetts to participate in six days of gaming.  Scrabble is a game, right?

Osseo Pokey

Nickel pokey at a truck stop in Osseo, Wisconsin

Friendliness.  I am impressed by how nice everyone is.  Nearly everyone we have encountered has treated us as valued guests, from waitresses to hotel desk clerks to store personnel. It seems everyone wants to know where we’re from, where we’re going and what route we’re taking to get there.  As a native New Yorker who now calls California home, this is not something I’m used to.  It is heartening that the brusque  “Whaddya want?” attitude, so pervasive on the coasts, has not seeped into the American heartland.  This gives me hope for humanity.

 

 

 

Mount Rushmore, Part 1

Keystone SD

Downtown Keystone SD

The 2017 Great American Escape

KEYSTONE, SOUTH DAKOTA

U.S. 16, the road from Rapid City to Mount Rushmore, is studded with tourist kitsch of every ilk and description.  Reptile Gardens.  The Dinosaur Museum.  Bear Country USA.  A wax museum.  Miniature golf.  You can just hear the kids in the cars yelling “Mom! Dad! Pleeeeeease??”

But that’s nothing compared to the raucous assortment of rock shops, souvenir emporia, tchotchke mongers and cafés lining the main  drag in Keystone, two miles from the famous faces carved in stone.  As a result of the association of Theodore Roosevelt with the monument, it seemed that about half the commercial establishments contain “Teddy’s” somewhere in their names.

We picked out a likely looking café for dinner; the food was quite good, but the accommodations lacking.  Perhaps I should have been tipped off by the middle school sensibility of the rest room signs that read “Pointers” and “Squatters.”  So call me dense and clueless.  Guilty as charged.

We had three choices of seating:  Perched on high tops on the main floor, up a steep flight of stairs to normal tables, or outdoors.  As we are no longer able to comfortably climb either stairs or chairs, we ended up eating out on the patio.  With the sun beating down on us.  In 95 degree heat.  With flies landing on our food every two minutes.  Psssstt!  Ever heard of a little thing called the ADA?  It’s a really lovely law that we have in our country to protect those of us with disabilities, and I believe South Dakota is still part of the Union.  Well, last time I checked, anyway.  Um, should I have brought my passport?

My wife has about had it with my griping, and I can’t say I blame her a bit.  My generally poor attitude has been exacerbated by my own stupidity in bringing along only one pair of shoes, a pair that, as luck would have it, offer no support whatsoever and are painful to walk in for even the shortest distance.

Happily, my sour disposition took an about face as we drove up the mountain, rounded a curve… and suddenly, somehow unexpectedly, there it was in all its glory, Mount Rushmore and its famous presidential faces.  We came upon it all at once, unprepared even, and joined two other cars in pulling off the road to gawk, mouths hanging agape in awe and amazement.  The only experience I can compare this to is stepping out of Paris’ Trocadéro métro station to find the Eiffel Tower right in front of me.

Let’s just say that no photo of Mount Rushmore you have ever seen can begin to compare to the view in person.  I now understand why people from every corner of the earth have this site on their bucket lists.

As the sun was rapidly setting and we had done a long day’s drive to get here, we will return to the monument in the morning to visit it properly.

More to follow.

 

 

Talkin”Bout My Generation

Big Sky

Montana:  Big sky, open highway

The 2017 Great American Escape

BILLINGS, MONTANA

I have long had an eclectic appreciation of popular music.  During my childhood, my father introduced me to big band music and show tunes; later, I got into ’50s doo-wop and then country music and finally the hits of the ’70s and ’80s.  I pretty much lost track of pop music around 1990.

This can mean only one thing:  I’m getting old.  The music on my iPhone largely represents the days of my youth.  And I guess I’m not alone.  A lot of us Baby Boomers are starting to sport silver hair, serve as fodder for AARP and create commercial opportunities for all things retro.

To verify that my musical tastes are in line with the masses of my generation, I need only to visit a store or restaurant and pay attention to the background music piped in through the speakers.  Last night, for example, as we perched on stools at a casino bar in rural Nevada and stabbed at the video poker machines, I couldn’t help but notice that the house music was the Sirius XM channel 80s on 8.  As I sipped my soda, I realized that nearly every song I heard is on my phone.  Cyndi Lauper?  Check.  Madonna?  Check.  Michael Jackson?  Check.  Bananarama?  Check. Men at Work?  Bon Jovi?  Prince?  Check, check, check.  I guess my age group is supposed to have money and has thus become the target audience to woo.

This morning, we stopped for breakfast in Twin Falls, Idaho.  As we checked out the menu, we heard “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” followed by the Honeydrippers’ version of “Sea of Love.”

I rest my case.